I don’t remember ever learning about death. Death has been part of my life for so long that I feel, erroneously of course, as if I’ve always known about it.
My great-grandparents died fairly soon after my birth, so I don’t really remember them. My first two family doctors died prematurely. One was murdered. The other fell asleep while driving. When I was younger, I used to think that all doctors died young.
The first death I can remember clearly was my aunt’s. She had had breast cancer which had re-emerged as lung cancer. The next death I can remember is my grandma’s best friend, Roma. These deaths, not to mention the deaths of my pets, made me no stranger to the concept.
When I was very young, I would lie awake at night and think about death—my mother’s death, mainly. The prospect terrified me. I would count up my age in my head, making a note of what her age would be at that time.
When I am twenty, she will be fifty-eight. When I am fifty, she will be eighty-eight. When I am sixty, she will be ninety-eight!
I would feel cold in the darkness. A despair would surround me, pushing on the bottom of my eyes.
I don’t want her to die! What would I do without her?
I would also take this time to contemplate my own death. I knew that I could die at any time. The prospect frightened me. I believed in God. I believed in heaven. Yet still I contemplated: What if there was nothing after death? Just a great nothing stretching out for all time before me, a void. No, I would correct myself, not a nothing forever. A stop. A ceasing to be. No consciousness at all.
I had trouble imagining this. To think one minute and then just… not. I imagined myself dead. No one would remember me after my family was gone. I wanted to live! I wanted to do so much with my life!
So, as I lay there in the dark, a new feeling would envelope me: a fearful desperation nipping at the sides of my head and pushing towards the surface at my wrists and neck.
“Please, God,” I would pray, cowering beneath my covers to escape the cold darkness of my thoughts, “please let me live, at least until I’m ten!” I did not pray for my mother’s life. I was afraid it would give God ideas. Thinking about her death, I would cry silently, hoping that sleep would take me from the sadness of my own thoughts.
Once, when I was thinking about my fears about death, I asked my mom, “Are you ever afraid that nothing comes after death?” She paused for a moment.
“Sometimes,” she replied. “Your great-grandma was afraid of dying, and she was conscious until the end. ‘I don’t know what comes next,’ she said. ‘What if there’s nothing?’
“Auntie Barbara was there with her, and she asked her, ‘Do you feel me holding your hand?’ And your great-grandma replied that yes, she felt her hand. A little later, she said that she couldn’t feel her hand anymore, and Auntie Barbara told her, ‘The next hand you hold will be Lyle’s’; she died soon after. But she was smiling. I think that she was holding his hand.”
When I was in Grade 7, my grandma was seventy-nine years old. She was turning eighty that year, and, like me, she had a twin sister. I had heard the adults talking about her birthday plans. They wanted us all to go down to visit Auntie Barbara so that the two could spend their eightieth birthday together. I didn’t want to go. If we went, we would be going over Easter, and I thought that the Easter Bunny wouldn’t be able to find us. So I prayed to the gods, “Please gods and goddesses, please don’t let us go away for my grandma’s birthday.”
Soon afterwards, my grandma had a stroke.
I was slightly alarmed. Had that happened because of me? I hadn’t wanted my grandma to get hurt. That being said, I wasn’t too upset. My grandma, I was convinced, would get better.
And, a part of me whispered, we won’t have to go away over Easter.
I had gotten what I wanted.
My grandma spent months in the hospital. The stroke had left her paralyzed on her left side. She couldn’t walk. She wanted to go home, but, of course, she couldn’t. We had no way to get her there, and the apartment she shared with my grandpa wouldn’t accept people who needed full time care. Despite everything, I was confident that she would get better. I even thought that she would be able to walk again. As the months went on with no real improvement, I become more perturbed. I prayed to the gods, to Apollo in particular, to make my grandmother well again. I made her a bracelet using colours to represent Apollo. I sang to him.
Eventually, the hospital told us we had to move my grandma. They needed her bed, so we moved her to Dufferin Oaks Long Term Care Home. My mother visited her as often as possible. Anytime she could spare, she would go. I didn’t. Up until the end, I truly believed that she would get better.
On a sunny day in January, my mom asked me if I wanted to go up to Dufferin Oaks. She was going up there with my brother. I said no. I don’t remember why, now. Maybe I was hoping to go to a friend’s house. Maybe I just wanted the house to myself for a bit, so I took the opportunity to stay behind. I suppose it doesn’t matter now. My mother and my brother left. Later, they came back. Just as they always had.
A few hours later, I was walking down the stairs when I heard the phone ring. The sun was still shining. Looking back now, it’s impossible to tell if the feeling I remember as I ran to get the phone was real, or just a tinge added in hindsight. Something wasn’t right. That same feeling, pushing behind my eyes and against my throat that I had felt before re-emerged in the light of day. Though I never would have named it at the time, it was the fear and despair of death.
My aunt was on the phone. She was crying, a raw and sorrowful cry that spoke so vividly of her pain and loss and despair that it was as if I saw her before me. It was a cry that posed to the universe the question, “What do I do?” and the helplessness of it gave me hope as she said through her tears, “Can I please speak to your mom? It’s about Grandma.”
Feeling sick, I called my mom and handed her the phone. Then I walked out of the kitchen. As I turned out of the room, I looked at my mother. She started crying, and I quickly turned away and ran upstairs, but the image of her ─ tears streaming down her face, running over the red around her eyes like rain falling on the dying embers of a fire ─ was already burned into my mind. I fled from it.
My grandma was afraid of dying alone. My mother had told me so. I understood. I didn’t want to be alone against the darkness, the cold potential void of death. I thought of this as I ran.
Finding my sister upstairs, I felt compelled to tell her what was going on.
“Emma,” I started hesitantly, “that’s Auntie Sue on the phone. It’s about Grandma.” She looked at me, concerned. “I think something’s very wrong,” I stated. Emma burst into tears.
“But she might just be in surgery,” I continued hurriedly, “She could be alright….”
I was thinking about that helplessness in my aunt’s cry. Maybe she felt helpless because they were trying to save my grandma’s life, and she couldn’t do anything to help. I didn’t realise then that it was the helplessness of a child left without her mother.
What do I do? What do I do without her?
I’d never considered my aunt as a child before.
Once my sister started crying, the fear and desperation grew within me. Running into my mother’s room, I prayed, “Oh, Apollo, god of music, archery, prophecy, some say the sun, and more; and also god of healing: Please heal my grandma. Please, please don’t let her die. Oh, gods and goddesses, please don’t let my grandmother die!” I was desperate. I looked out at the sun pleadingly, praying fervently for my grandma’s life until my mother called me and my sister to her.
When I walked into the living room, my brother and my sister were already standing around my mom.
“That was Auntie Sue,” she began. “Dufferin Oaks just called her to say that Grandma has died.” I felt numb. I wondered if I would cry. I didn’t think so.
Mom continued, voice heavy with the exhaustion of loss, “She died in her sleep. Uncle Bruce and I are going to go up there now to make arrangements…”
Then I did start crying. The tears ran down my cheeks, but I felt empty, not sad. I was in disbelief.
“Mom,” I breathed after I had finished crying, “please take a picture. I can’t believe it, and I won’t until I see her.” She agreed to take the picture for me.
My grandma was afraid to die alone. And she did die alone. The picture was a stark reminder of that. Her eyes were closed. She almost could have been asleep. But amidst the image of her lying back, covered by her blankets, her arm reached out. She reached out towards one of her stuffed bears as if she was searching for a hand to hold as she was taken from the world, just as her mother had done before her. But she had found none.
Why hadn’t I gone to visit her? I knew that I couldn’t have kept her awake or alive. I knew that I couldn’t have made us be able to stay so that we could be with her when she died. But I chose not to see her on the day that she died.
And she died alone.
I cried once at the funeral. Empty tears, once again.
I didn’t cry again for two and a half years.
I knew a girl in the gifted program when I was in Grade 8. She was two years younger than me, so she was in the other class. We were paired together for an inter-class assignment, so I worked with her. She was nice.
The night was clear when the phone rang to deliver the news: She was supposed to be riding her horse in a parade when she was flung off and killed. The horse crushed her. I was sad that she was dead, but I didn’t cry at her funeral.
I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me. Why couldn’t I cry? It troubled me. I couldn’t cry, so I thought I lacked empathy. I couldn’t stop thinking about myself, so I thought I was egotistical. My inability to cry combined with my preoccupation with myself led me to believe that I was a narcissist. It didn’t matter that I could still feel what others felt, or that I tended to obsess on the things that I hated in myself. Although I acknowledged this, I truly believed that I was some sort of self-hating narcissist.
But in the summer, just before I started Grade 10, all this changed. Once again, it was a sunny day, but it was also a good day. Warmth and friendship soaked into me, and I felt content. I was spending the day at my friend’s house. Sumnima and I were up in her bedroom, and the air felt warm and dry. I trusted her.
We were talking about everything, as we always do. Eventually, I got around to talking about my grandmother. As I usually did when I spoke about her, I felt a vague, far off sadness, like the sound of a large distant river. Just like every other time I had talked about her, I expected the sadness and guilt to remain subdued; this time it didn’t.
“She died,” I whispered, “when I was in Grade 7. She had a stroke.” Tears started to stream down my face, making tracks like the course of the river.
“I know it’s not my fault,” My words were getting louder now as I felt myself drawn towards saying a truth that I had kept silent inside me for so long. “I know, but…”
And suddenly I found myself surrounded by this river of emotions from which I had tried so hard to distance myself. The roar of it was deafening, and I was taken by the current wherever it would lead me.
I told Sumnima everything. I was a horrible person. I had wished that we wouldn’t go, and I hadn’t even been really upset when my grandma had the stroke. And even after I had made that wish and seen the damage, even if the two were unrelated, I still put my own convenience before my grandma. And she died alone.
The weight of it threatened to drown me as Sumnima led me over to the bed and sat me down on the warm covers. Through my tears, I managed to weep the most heartbreaking part of what I had done.
“She died alone. She was so afraid of dying alone. And she was reaching as if to find someone, but no one was there. And I know it’s not my fault, but I didn’t go to her on her last day. She must have been so scared!” I sobbed.
Sumnima sat beside me on the bed. We just sat while I cried at last. And as I began to calm down, I realised that I was going to be okay. Despite the guilt and the sorrow, and despite the mistakes I had made that would follow me for the rest of my life, I was not a bad person. I had to learn from my mistakes and not internalise or repress them.
So I started allowing myself to feel the sadness, guilt, and pain in my life. I allowed these feelings to move through me, and I realised that I was not a narcissist. I always had compassion and empathy, but now I enabled myself to express them freely. This realisation let me focus on the other underlying issues that had led me to believe I was a narcissist for so long. I was finally able to identify that low self-esteem, and not egotism, was the root of my self-absorption. I had used my guilt at my grandma’s death and my supposed narcissism as excuses to continue to punish myself for perceived flaws.
In recognising this pattern, I changed the way I thought. I could not keep punishing myself over and over for momentary faults. It wasn’t easy. I had fallen into the habit of harsh mental criticism, so every time I started to berate myself for some tiny flaw, I would have to stop and remind myself that this wasn’t healthy or fair to me.
But this wasn’t the only thing I learned from my grandma’s death. To some extent, everyone in my family felt guilty for not being there with her. If I could help it, I knew that I would never let something like that happen again.
In the winter break of 2017, my mother, sister, and I drove down to Florida. We spent the first few days at a hotel attached to the Universal Studios theme-park, but for the last part of our vacation, my mother rented an apartment by the beach so that we could relax and go swimming. It was one of the last days we were supposed to be staying there, and I awoke to my mom’s voice.
“Girls, you need to get up,” she called out shakily. “Get dressed quickly and pack up. We need to go.”
“Why? What’s wrong?” I asked apprehensively.
“Auntie Sue just called me. Grandpa’s in the hospital. We don’t know why just now. You know that he has heart problems. I think he’ll probably be fine, but we’re driving back, just in case….”
I was shocked. We had seen my grandpa ten days earlier, at Christmas. He was fine then. I remembered him telling me a story, the same one he had recounted over half a dozen times before, about how when he was thirty and needed a pacemaker, his surgeon was one of the few female heart specialists at the time, but she was such an expert, that she was followed everywhere by male medical students, who noted down everything she’d say.
My grandpa had been through scares with his heart before. I wasn’t too alarmed, but a bit of unease formed behind my ears which compelled me to ask, “Mom, did you tell Josh about this?” My brother had remained at McMaster over the break.
“No, I don’t want to worry him. He has class now,” she answered.
“I think that we should tell him. He deserves to know what’s going on.”
My mother disagreed, and told me that I wasn’t to tell him. There was no reason to upset him when we didn’t even know how bad it was.
As I packed my things, it bothered me that Josh didn’t know. I knew that my mother would be upset with me for telling him, and if I did call him, I would get in trouble. So I decided to prompt my brother into asking instead. Just before I packed my phone, I texted him: Josh, call Mom.
We were driving in the car a few hours later when he finally called. My mom gave me a look from the front seat, but she had to explain what was going on. My brother decided to drive to the hospital with my cousin.
I could tell that my mother was not happy with me after she hung up.
“I’m not sorry,” I told her. “He deserved to know.”
A few hours later, my aunt called my mom. My grandpa’s condition had worsened. My brother and cousin had arrived at the hospital along with everyone else in my family who could be there.
My mom was on speaker phone in the car, so I could hear my aunt clearly as she explained, “The doctors think it’s some sort of flesh-eating bacteria. He probably got it the day before yesterday. He had an appointment at the hospital, so he could’ve got it from anywhere. Anyway, he’s in pretty good spirits. We showed him pictures of your trip and he’s happy you’re having a good time.”
The news made my mother drive faster. I could see the alarm growing inside her; she desperately wanted to be with her father. She had already been absent for one parent’s death. She didn’t want it to happen again. Once again, I was glad that I had texted Josh.
As the day turned to night, the weather worsened. A snowstorm blew in, but we drove through it in the dark. Through some sort of strange turn of events, I became the only person with cell phone service (we could tell because my phone kept going off), but it was in a bag in the back, so I couldn’t reach it to read my messages. The worst part of the trip was through the mountains. White-outs were common, and trucks would sometimes pass us out of nowhere. I looked out the window. Again I stared into the cold and the dark.
“Please, gods,” I prayed, “save him. Let him survive.”
By eleven o’clock at night, we had almost gone off the road twice. My mother decided that we had to stop, so we pulled into a hotel. While my mom made the arrangements for a room, I dug my phone out of where I had packed it. I had several calls from my Uncle, and text messages from my cousins and brother, telling me to call Uncle Paul. As soon as I called him, I handed the phone to my mom. My uncle was crying on the other end. My mom started crying, too.
I knew what that meant. After she hung up, my mom told us.
My grandfather had tried to fight, but it had been too much. He was dead. The pain of loss engulfed me, drawing tears in a torrent from my eyes. My mother, my sister, and I stood together as the snow fell around us in the hotel parking lot, sobs wracking our chests as we held each other.
Later that night, as I tried to fall asleep, I reflected on the destruction inherent in death. When people die, we say they leave. They are no longer with us. But death isn’t just an absence. It is not a clean removal, like when a piece is taken out of a puzzle. People weave, as threads in a tapestry, into and out of each other’s lives so that to remove one person is to tear a hole in the cloth, leaving only frayed edges where that life has touched all the others. I would miss my grandpa. I loved him, and I loved talking to him. Without him, I felt raw and incomplete. But I knew that it would get better. And in the midst of my sorrow, I was comforted. I felt that my grandpa was not gone. He died surrounded by our family, with my brother by his side. He knew he was loved. He was not alone when his time came, and now, my grandma would no longer be alone, either.